White Picket Fences
Every year we tried to make it work, and every year we got approximately the same fabulous success story. Somehow, my family consistently managed to make Thanksgiving the most interesting holiday of the year it always held a different surprise. And it was that time of year again; this year we had decided to drive around. It was only a two hour drive (or a forty minute ferry ride across the Puget Sound) from Seattle to Bremerton just a hop and skip out of Seattle. But it always amazed me that such a short distance could make such a difference in values. In the way people live. I think my family shares the same basic values at the very least place importance on love; they just have an incredibly awkward way of showing it. Though sometimes it seems that everything beyond the basics were items up for contestation.
Everyones family is dysfunctional (maybe not as outwardly so as mine), but some work better with what theyre given. I call them artists, though not all artists are necessarily honest. Norman Rockwell was a phony. He might as well have painted unicorns its just as realistic. True, authentic, bona fide families just arent that picturesque. Ive been a guest at a perfect Thanksgiving. It was scary. Because I knew I probably had a closet drug addict sitting to my left, and a pedophiliac sitting across from me. Id rather celebrate Thanksgiving with a movie and a HungryMan TV dinner. Id even rather challenge myself with the company of my own family; at least theyre obvious about their problems. Even the neighbors know about their issues no secrets here. But then, this kind of silver lining shines about as proudly as dull pewter.
I sat in the back seat, my sunglasses reflecting the glare coming off I-5. Ive found that if you look directly at the glare, it hurts less than if you catch it sideways. But then, maybe its just because I cant feel when my retinas are burning. Not having nerve endings is pretty cool. Sometimes its really nice to not have to feel the world around me. And being somewhat deaf can have its benefits as well. Up front, my Dad and Uncle Marc were having a lively conversation about how the world as we know it is going to end. The blame game was up and rolling up for discussion were the very important matters of exactly How Bush Fucked It All Up, and who helped him do it. Apparently my family was going to buy property in the boondocks and start a commune. I wondered whether this was how all leftist hippies dealt with the politics of today? Bitch a lot and run away to start communes in the mountains. Mission accomplished all the hippies have headed for the hills.
I suppose its possible, its been done before but by my family? Theyre much more the Young Urban Professionals yuppies, as it were. They can lay an even heavier claim on yippies than yuppies or hippies. Ah, yippies, my very own, very technical re-definition for a very special kind of people:
yip°pie² n. : A hypocritical combination of [the social classes of] hippies and yuppies.
They can be defined as a breed of people that might eat organic foods and practice yoga, but drive an SUV in the city. They would recycle every last toilet paper roll, but dont have time to help feed the homeless. A breed of people that will join the Sierra Club, but never actively participate in the cause. My grandpa would call them dewey-eyed, bleeding-heart liberals. I wouldnt, but thats only because I see myself heading in that general direction. Sadly. I dont know what else Id do; Im certainly not cut out for mountain living. Neither roughing it nor patchouli hold any interest for me. Im just a typical, apathetic, mid-twenties urbanite.
Survival of the fittest, they told me over the drone of the highway, better wise up quick, or youre gonna get left behind. I dont know whether I believed them or not. I could imagine it, but their vision still seemed a little extreme. Im not sure I had evolved enough, politically speaking, to fit into their vision of the new world order. I only cared enough about politics to figure out which was the lesser evil of the two, and vote for them. Typically it was the politician less connected to oil to the war machines. As a general rule, if I just voted for the opposite of whomever my Grandpa supported, I was headed in a politically progressive direction.
I thought it was funny that all the descendents of my grandparents took an anti-war stance: None of us would have existed without it my grandma was a souvenir from the Korean War. And yet I still vote against running off and starting wars. I take pity on the possibility of other families cropping up like ours did taking a stand against war is just a form of preventative medicine. Like birth control. My family was a great reminder why I took birth control religiously. I figured I was safe with my somewhat apathetic views. But how safe? According to Uncle Marc, not very safe at all.
I dont remember exactly how my uncle phrased his version of the American apocalypse, but I remembered it carrying a very God-like, condescending tone. The kind of tone that would reverberate like the passing of a commandment through a megaphone on a soapbox. Maybe it was the subject matter. Or maybe it was just that I was way too stoned to be hearing anything so deep. Some people like thinking a lot when theyre stoned they like analyzing and picking things apart. I smoke to forget my problems, or to cope with my family. But sometimes it doesnt help.
From Bush-isms to the same repeated conversation loops about Team America, I had their conversation more memorized with each successive trip to Bremerton. Between the two of them, I had already heard all the jokes so many times that I had forgotten I hadnt seen the movie. By the time we reached the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, my buzz had long since dissipated into a dull headache that I knew would only get worse. When my Uncle put on his bluegrass CD and pulled out his banjo, I was relieved, if only momentarily. This is not to say that I dont like bluegrass, but the sound of a banjo plucking away inside a car is a little more tinny and twangy than you might imagine.
I was tired of being in the car, and tired of listening to their banter. I think at some point they got tired of listening to each other, too. And it was about there that Dad started swerving a little bit. All that conversation must have exhausted him I know it exhausted me. The usual crossover (between siblings it happens effortlessly) from conversation to argument began.
No, Im not.
Yes, you are. Youre gonna get us killed.
Im fine. Its only a little bit further.
Let me drive.
Im fine, Dad reiterated, rolling down the window. After a moments quiet, the car swerved again, and the conversation repeated. And repeated. This was like some sad combination between a knock-knock joke and one of those songs that you learned as a kid that went on forever and ever. After it lost its novelty, all you could do was pray that it got old for everyone else soon, too. I twisted under the constraints of the seatbelt (which I had no desire to loosen), glancing to the sides and to the rear of the car, while I picked at the cracked, peeling pleather siding of the door. If we were going to keep swerving and playing the Im not too tired to drive game (which, by the way, has been proven to be just as dangerous as the Im not too drunk to drive game), I wanted to at least double check that while we were at it, we werent going to kill anyone outside of our gene pool. Unless maybe they had a W04 sticker on their car. With the size of the headache I had, I could see myself owning up to a death wish. It would seem appropriately ironic to tie it all back to their earlier political conversations. A nice, well-rounded, conversationally pre-packaged drive to Bremerton. At least we would arrive with a bang.
But then, it doesnt take an accident to arrive with a bang at my grandparents house. Its always one heck of an adventure. I finally let go of the breath I had been holding, just in case; it could have been my last. The car had miraculously made it, and pulled into the driveway. There we were greeted by a 2 x 3 sticker on the back windshield of Grandpas car that advertised how he felt about the war:
I had to admire my familys patriotism, no matter which side of ignorance they fell on. At least they believed in something. My legs seemed to creak as I stepped out of the car I could feel my tendons stretching out of their tightly wound positions. Grandpas bumper sticker ignited a short burst of griping before the topic was officially dropped and we headed inside. The tension had migrated from my tendons to my neck. There was a military-style Fourth of July crackling behind my eyelids, an explosive celebration in migraines. I dont know whether family gatherings for other people caused the hypochondriac to come out as much as my family gatherings did, but if so, Thanksgiving must be a very profitable time for doctors.
Ah, Bremerton: Scent of the Navy. I could almost taste the sweat, machinery and Old Spice that hung thick on the breeze. I gulped down one last whiff of semi-fresh air before entering the house, where the same air has been recirculating for the last 15 years. I took my shoes off at the door, scrunching my toes into the carpet. Best to get my footing early. I was in a Navy town and I didnt bring my sea-legs. Grandma scuttled over and gave me a soft, wrinkled hug. Her skin felt like a shaved puppy. I felt like Id been left on the doorstep when she shuffled back to her chair.
Every time I saw her she got a little shorter; I think her rapid shrinkage was from all the TV she watched. Its all she ever did anymore, slouching into that chair of hers. She was the best thing ever imported from Korea fell for a dashing American Naval Officer and took up the role of the good submissive housewife. She wouldnt want to ruin her image by piping up. After all he did for her bringing her from a life of hard work and poverty to a comfortable lifestyle in America where she can slowly die by the light of the TV. To disrespect that gift would be a travesty. I guess. I missed her spunk. My grandma has been dissolving for years, though you wouldnt know it by looking at her. But you can see it in the way she moves, and you can smell the death on her. She certainly didnt have a fresh puppy scent.
Of course, if I had to live with my Grandpa, Id happily succumb to boredom for the sake of self preservation. I would turn on the TV, too. This said a lot, seeing as the TV I owned had a Legalize Free Thought sticker across the top, no buttons and no remote. Every time I turned it on, I risked electrocution. But with Grandpa around, Id be more than happy to stick my fingers into whatever holes and sockets were available. Whatever would keep him quiet; its hard to be doing anything wrong when youre doing absolutely nothing. Even so, it was possible to find something wrong with the way youre doing nothing, if you really dig. And Grandpa was good at finding those flaws the military had trained him well.
Shoulders back, Grandpa gave Dad and Marc a very straight hug the handshake that pulls into a hug / backpat thing. Its really almost a homophobic hug. No one in my immediate family is gay, and its no wonder as to why. I was next in the hug chain, and I got a real hug. And a poke in the belly.
Getting kinda chubby, arent you?
I guess he hadnt noticed that I had lost thirty pounds. I wanted to pull his beer belly up into his face and ask him the same.
Getting chubby, arent you, Grandpa, Id deliver with a poke and a smile, seen your feet lately? If only. Instead I just laughed. It was as good a way as any to cope. Laugh or cry pick one, kid, were out of smoke. And only pansies cry. I slid across the linoleum to safety on the other side of the kitchens island. I typically feel safer in the kitchen; I get it from my Grandma she taught me to cook.
From my safe zone, I poured myself a glass of water from the tap and brought one out to Dad, who had laid down on the living room floor for a quick nap. The kitchen was warm I had to wonder how long the oven had been preheating. It was all warmed up and ready for Marc to start on the turkey. Grandma had been too ill to cook in these last few years, and Grandpa couldnt cook a lick. His idea of good food was spam and eggs with toast, if youre lucky. Thank God for uncles that cook. Marc began working on the turkey while I watched, imagining a fully feathered turkey dancing around on the islands counter. Once the turkey was set up and tossed into the oven, Marc started in on the fridge. It was the usual sequence of events.
“Ugh. What’s this? How long has this been in here?” He picked up a slimy grocery produce bag. Whatever it had been, it was now reduced to a cake-like blob that appeared to be bleeding milk. I hoped it wasnt alive. Marc cringed and gave it its long overdue burial in the trash can. I sat down under the dim lighting of dirty skylights, and started meticulously drawing concentric circles on a notepad. It read “Zoloft” in great, purple, italicized letters across the top. Freebies from the doctor visits; Im glad there were some fringe benefits to getting old and being sick all the time.
“Oh man! Mom, isnt this that soup I made for you two weeks ago? Why havent you eaten it? Dad, did you not let her eat it? You know this was organic.”
“Marc, weve been eating non-organic for years and were fine.”
“Yeah, and look how sick mom is!” He pointed to Grandma, who was trying to stay out of it by ignoring the both of them. Marc continued waging war on their decomposing, non-organic foodstuffs. He was turning my safe haven a place where I could pretend to hide from the rest of the familys madness into another battleground, and I resented him for it.
“Jesus! Whats this? Isnt this that chicken from last week?”
“That was from last night, Marc.”
“No its not! This is from
“MARC. That was from last night.”
I could see their inner dogs growling. The hair on my arms stood on end. I felt like a magnet being pulled all at once into every direction possible any direction which wasnt in this room. I looked to the crudely carved, apple shaped bowl on the counter and stuffed some dusty almonds in my mouth. I had no idea how many weeks or months they had been sitting there. At least if someone asked my opinion, I would have an excuse to opt out; it would be rude to speak with my mouth full. I didnt care how old they were they made me feel better. An amendment to my prior statement, then: Laugh, cry, or eat. Whatever it all works for me.
The turkey was a little over half done when Aunt Diane showed up. She flew up from Florida for this lovely occasion. More hugs are shared, all around. My dad got up to give her a hug before laying back down, his eyes drowsily following the greetings and small-talk. Its egotistical, I know, but Im disappointed that she doesnt notice that Ive halved in size. I surveyed the growing situation and got up to get myself another glass of water. While I was up, I grabbed a couple pens to color in my doodle of what looked like a cross-section of a tree. I ended up with red and blue. A Great American Waste of Time that blessedly allowed me to avoid making much eye contact. I kept pretending to look busy.
Marc threw sidelong gossip at me, “If she really cared, shed help your Grandma out more.” I blinked back an empty response, watching Diane hug Grandma. Diane was the kid who made out the best, I suppose. After working real-estate and owning fishing boats, Diane and her husband Ron were multi-millionaires. They had more money than I could ever picture. And they didnt help out with Grandmas medical bills or help pay for the stay-at-home nurse. They had retired recently, with all the money in the world. So much money I wouldnt know what to do with it; I suppose I would spend it with family and friends. But she just cant find the time to get up here and help out. They are addicted to having money, making money, and keeping money. Ill never understand it. Neither will Marc, but hes the only one that makes a point of not understanding it.
“Hey Diane, wheres Ron?”
Touchy subject, and Marc knew it. Ron is the son-in-law / brother-in-law that nobody liked. Apparently hes a superficial prick. Ive only met him once, when I was eleven, so I dont really know him. The first time he met my Grandma, he didnt really meet her or so the story goes. Its a little weird, almost creepy, really. He was dropping Diane off, and wanted to see Grandma. When she walked out of the house, and Ron saw that she looked good for her age, he sped off. That was enough for him; he knew Diane would age well and he would reap the benefits of having someone that was easy on the eyes, if he stuck around. And he did. Who wouldnt want a Hot Wife? So hes definitely superficial, but I didnt know whether he was a prick or not.
“He had to take the boat back to the island to pick up the other car. He said hes sorry he couldnt make it.”
Diane and Ron were moving back up here, supposedly, to help care for Grandma. Its been a work in progress for over three years now. I doubted Grandma had more than another year, two at best. Really, Diane just popped in to make appearances. Maybe wants to make sure shes in the will. I would like to think better of her than that, but I havent been given much else to go on.
“Other car?” Marc snickered. His truck was so covered in anti-war stickers and posters that it barely ran; I think the weight of the world was killing his truck. “How many cars do you have?”
“Three up here. Two on the island, one in Anacortes.”
“Why on Earth do you need three?”
“To get from here to our boat, and from our boat to home,” Diane responded, unruffled. She sat down on the arm of the couch. I was baffled at their conversation, none of it made much sense to me it was a weird language of judgments and jealousies that were being played out in a very sibling-like manner. Diane seemed puzzled that Marc didnt understand why she would need all fifty million vehicles. She delivered Marc her real-estate agent smile. Charmed, Im sure.
“Ah, Marc… Hows your dog? Your girl treating you right?”
It was another touchy subject. No one in my immediate family was gay, as far as we knew. But Marc really loved his dogs. His girlfriends never stuck around very long. I watched their interactions from my safe haven, now reduced to the length of one cupboard. My fingernails scraped the bottom of the wooden bowl, and I was keenly aware of the silence that has dropped into the room, and even more aware that I was out of almonds. When youre chewing crunchy foods, its hard to understand exactly what is being said its a little like Mystery Science Theater; they can be saying anything you want them to:
“So nice to see you!”
“God, you look great. How on Earth have you been? Wheres Ron he really ought to come next time. Ah, I missed you.”
“I missed you, too.”
“The turkey looks great! Anything I can do to help?”
“No, no. But wheres my hug?”
Yeah, that would be nice. My moms favorite saying rattled around in my head, “If you cant make it, fake it.” Somehow it seemed appropriate, but I couldnt pin it down. At times, I wished dad and mom still got along; then I remembered that they never did. She got out of her Thanksgiving responsibilities smart woman.
I was knee deep in a foggy silence that was broken only by the banter of the impeccably perky Rachael Ray and her cooking show. I wished I could walk through the TV into the land of good times. This kitchen was too hot for me. The TV suspended words in the air like garlands of commercialized happiness, hanging meaningless words between us. Im just grateful something filled the space. My dad, forever the Understanding Son, stroked my Grandmas hand as her head dropped off into slumber.
Less than an hour until the turkey was done, and I was looking forward to a table full of mouths too full to talk – at least, that was the hope. I started working on the rest of the dishes for dinner. Reclaiming my territory in the kitchen, I came up with: a vat of mashed potatoes and gravy, sautéed greens over a mushroom-rice pilaf, beets, sweet creamed corn, fruit salad, a delicious cranberry-horseradish chutney, and sliced persimmons. Simple, but effective; my time had disappeared into the vortex of cooking, while around me, the uncomfortable world that is my family continued to do a brilliant job of being itself. Everything looked perfect, and the turkey was almost done. I finally looked up from my now-fragrant safe zone to see my family still fighting like cats in a duffel bag. It was almost impressive, the way they twisted words into weapons. Im glad theyre all on my team – I refuse to take staunch sides with any of them when they argue.
Marc and Grandpa were having a jolly time discussing Grandma. A regular party. I never understood why they had to have these conversations every time they got together, and always in front of her. Way to put a Granny in the middle. I suppose shed learned just to tune them out – I hope she had, at least. I think for Christmas, Santa is going to bring her a set of high-quality earplugs. Things had escalated, and I retreated to the kitchen yet again, primping and garnishing the dished I had prepared.
God Bless the inventor of the fingernail, and bless infomercials, too – vendors of the crappiest knives around (I think these were made by Ronco). Only this precious combination prevented me from cutting my index finger off. Marc had stormed outside, followed close at heel by grandpa. Not even the all-consuming kitchen could keep my attention so wholly as to miss them lurching off. And they had almost taken a chunk of my finger outside with them. Marcs dog, Pepper, was barking wildly from the garage. I set down the knife and crept into the dining room. Diane and Dad had watched the scene unfold in a disturbingly disconnected way. Grandma, as per usual, pretended to ignore the entire thing. Their expressions were blank; I couldnt tell whether they were taken aback, or whether this was as common as doing laundry. Its strange, but even though I was surprised, I really wasnt – nothing my family does to each other surprises me anymore.
I leaned over the back of their beautiful, uncomfortable, very Oriental sofa, and peeked through the blinds. There, for the whole world to see, was my grandfather and uncle, fist fighting in the front yard. In broad daylight. I wondered how many other families aired out their dirty laundry on Thanksgiving. Grandpas fist made solid contact with Marcs ribs, and Marc countered with quicker, though lighter body shots. Grandpa may have been retired from the Navy for over ten years, but being in three wars does wear off on you – being impossibly tough is not a skill you easily forget, even at seventy-six.
I felt bad for Marc – he was going against the Behemoth that was his Dad. I wondered how long this fight had been coming – probably Marcs whole lifetime. He was always trying to be the perfect son, and suffered nothing but rejection by Grandpa. They were too similar to get along. And too different. Mostly, just too damned stubborn.
Grandpa caught Marc with a clean left hook in the shoulder; the blinds slipped out between my fingers. I was hesitant to watch anymore – this scene was not something I was meant to be privy to. But I couldnt help myself. I pried my little spying slot back open and watched Marc swing for Grandpas face. I was going to have to look pretty hard for my jaw when this was all done. I think it had dropped straight to the floor and right through their very Oriental rug. That was something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. Not even in my family.
Grandpa dodged the jab to the chin (he was fast, for an ogre-ish Navy retiree), and barreled into Marc. He grappled Marc into a headlock and subdued him. They both seemed to calm down. I wouldnt have put it beyond Marc to go for one last sucker-punch, but when Grandpa let go, he didnt. Instead, Marc stalked away, got in his truck and drove off. Grandpa stood and watched him leave; I closed the blinds. I hustled back into the kitchen, where Diane gave me the most tired smile Id ever seen her wear. I didnt know whether or not it was all the Florida sun she was getting, but right at that moment she looked older to me than she ever had before. The timer went off, and I pulled the turkey out of the oven.
I heard Grandpas car pull out of the driveway, and immediately started gathering plates and silverware. This might be the first quiet Thanksgiving meal we ever had. I suppose it would have been polite for me to wait until they got back, but knowing them, I didnt really think that either of them would be back any time remotely soon. Marc was a headstrong son whose feelings (among other things) had been badly bruised. And Grandpa was simply prone to driving off at odd times. Its a good thing he had a Hybrid. He used his car as his escape from the family – he much preferred being by himself, or with his old Navy buddies. There, he had respect. With Diane, Marc, and Dad, respect was exacted, but it wasnt as genuine, and it was given less willingly.
No one asked what had happened, and I was fine with that, because I didnt know how to tell them. No amount of laughing or crying would appropriately express what I had seen. So I set the table instead, and I think they understood. From the kitchen, I brought out the platters of food, and Dad carved the turkey (with extra dark meat for the two of us) – an awkward task with Ronco knives. Diane helped Grandma into her chair, scooting her in so that she wouldnt fall.
I made one last sweep of the kitchen to make sure we had everything we needed and beamed, somewhat artificially, at Dad – I had almonds stuck in my teeth, and I knew it. Hey, its laugh or cry, right? Some of the tension slipped off his face, replaced by a smile. He put down the plate of turkey and gave me a hug. A real hug. This was family.
Like the best of American families, my family was duking it out over the little things. It was just a whole lot of little things that, eventually, turned into an issue. Dad and I had our problems, too. We didnt talk to each other for over ten years before we finally reconnected. I cant remember who made first contact. It took a lot of time and a lot of talking. But we were doing our best not to pass on what we grew up in – the environment he was raised in, and the environment he had raised me in. Family is supposed to be about love. It didnt matter which way you cut it – so long as you didnt cut each other. But our family get-togethers had become all about who could get the deepest dig – who could cause the biggest hurt.
Its no wonder I hid in the kitchen. And no big surprise my Grandma was always sleeping, or pretending to. And a real shock that Dad stayed out of it as much as possible. Hed been working on his anger management problems for years (one guess where he got them). The little stuff just wasnt a good enough reason anymore to let his temper bare its teeth. Because when it did, it was a regular shitstorm – I didnt see how it could possibly help smooth the situation, and I suppose neither did he. Let the big dogs run on their own.
We brought the platter of turkey into the dining room and sat around the table, a formidable mix of personalities just between the four of us. I started serving Grandma, filling her plate from edge to edge. She didnt eat much when Grandpa cooked for her, but if Marc or I cooked, she ate everything put in front of her. She needed the food for energy, for life – but it was only when she was surrounded by family that she really wanted to live. I still couldnt quite figure out why. Family is family, I guess. You have to love what you get.
I chose a nice piece of dark meat, and drowned it in cranberry chutney. Grandma was already well on her way, troweling food into her mouth faster than she could chew. Sometimes I wondered if Grandpa fed her at all when we werent there. She looked happy. I guess if you didnt know her, you wouldnt think so – she was crying while she ate. These days, every good meal was something really special to her. She couldnt walk anymore, couldnt read and didnt listen to music – all that was left for her was family and food. It was the two things she had left in life that she could appreciate. I guess thats what everything boiled down to in the end. Eating, shitting, sleeping, and love. We all have to make the best of what we have.
Theres only one chance to do things right, so might as well. I watched my grandma as she wiped the tears off her cheeks and stuffed forkfuls of food into her mouth simultaneously. I was happy to see her happy. I took a bite of turkey – it was perfect; I would have to remember to save some of the dark meat for Marc.
Diane smiled at me, tapping her fork on a beet, “why dont you have another piece? We all know how you love to eat.”
It was going to take more than that to get me to parry back. I gladly let it slide on by, and gave her my best impression of her very own, trademarked, real-estate smile. While Grandmas plate of food disappeared exponentially, I put another piece of turkey in my mouth and swished as much cranberry onto and between my teeth as I could. I grinned at my Dad. He laughed and sucked a piece of food down his windpipe. Never in his life had he looked so happy to choke. Now thats family. My family.
© 2006 by Michelle Ferris